Breeding ground

How many kids is too many? Members of Salon's Table Talk community have their say this week.

By Salon Staff

Published February 27, 2009 8:44PM (EST)

Issues and News

Is it selfish to have more than two children? 

Anglophile - 11:46 am Pacific Time - Feb 19, 2009 - #1 of 85

Um, yeah. Human beings are selfish creatures by nature; it is the very rare individual who enters into any pursuit purely for altruistic reasons.

It is inherently selfish, furthermore, to have even one child, whether it's to go about it the old-fashioned way, to use fertility treatments or to adopt. Because at the end of the day, part or much of the reason for wanting a child is to pass on something that is yours, whether it's your DNA, your wisdom and values, both of those, or something else or many other things.

That being said, I'm not really into the idea of having tons and tons of kids because first, the carbon footprint is huge; second, in many cases the older kids in very large families wind up doing much of the childcare for their younger siblings, which is an unfair burden; and third, it's particularly a bad idea if the parents don't have the necessary resources to provide for their kids' basic needs.

Jen - 06:18 pm Pacific Time - Feb 19, 2009 - #5 of 85

I don't think it's any of my business, and I mean that quite sincerely. There are so many other choices (personal, public, corporate, and national) that have a bigger impact than what one family does.

And even if having x number of kids is a bad choice for y reason (environmental, say) there are still abc and d bad reasons to have kids. Like lack of birth control. Like religious pressure to have as many kids as god sends (common here only a generation ago, and some people still believe it.) Like social pressure that a kid is something you "should do."

In short, I don't think putting some arbitrary number on the issue supplies much of a useful solution to any problems. Just makes people feel self-righteous, and provides an easy, brainless measuring stick.

NWHiker - 09:10 pm Pacific Time - Feb 19, 2009 - #8 of 85

Selfish might not be the best word. Irresponsible, or at least ... uncaring of resources, or something like that might be closer.

For the record, I have three. And yes, I know full well that that was beyond replacement. I knew it at the time. I made a decision that for my family two didn't feel right, it was a personal choice.

It meant that some choices we made were pretty cruddy. We drove an SUV for 5 years, it was the only thing that fit the three kids' carseats in the back. OTOH, I did extend breastfeeding, cloth diapers (only full loads!), and we live in a very small house. We shop consignment and practice the 3Rs, right? We buy organic and/or local as much as we can. We drive the kids much too far to private school. We try to make the best choices given the parameters of our lives.

So we've made some good and some bad choices, given that third child. You could say we were selfish, but that doesn't quite cover it, or isn't the full story. Now, the SUV is parked most of the time, we bought a Prius. Hee.

Nina Katarina - 06:34 am Pacific Time - Feb 20, 2009 - #11 of 85

It's profoundly selfish to have any kids. By doing so, you enter into an obligation to the future, to take that kid you've created and help them become the best human being they can be. If you live up to that obligation, you've negated the selfishness. If you don't, you're not making the world a better place. The more kids you have, the harder it is to live up to that obligation. Some people can do it, produce 4, 5 great human beings. Others fail with just one. But you never know the measure when the child is born.

Imogen - 08:00 am Pacific Time - Feb 20, 2009 - #14 of 86

I am a member of a religion (Judaism) that is shrinking worldwide, because of tragedies, decreasing birthrates and people "marrying out," which often loses the next generation. We also don't proselytize, and it is fairly difficult to convert to our religion. But, I like my religion, I think it is something valuable and deserves to continue. My part in this is to have at least 2 kids and raise them in the religion. Other people feel it is their responsibility to try to replace the millions that were lost during the Holocaust (and their potential descendents) by having 3 or more kids. Others take literally the biblical verse to "be fruitful and multiply." 

SG - 04:32 pm Pacific Time - Feb 20, 2009 - #34 of 86

If you think about this from the perspective of basic biology, human population should be like most animal populations: reproducing until we hit our carrying capacity, then dying off from disease and starvation/resource depletion and cycling as such. Most wild populations follow that type of cycle. Of course, with our human "intelligence" we have been able to thwart the cycle and dramatically increase the number at which the Earth hits human carrying capacity, but we're starting to see where that breaks down.

It really is fascinating to think about from an ecological perspective.

Dale - 03:02 pm Pacific Time - Feb 21, 2009 - #41 of 86

Heh. Well, I have a lot of kids (5), I hang around with people with a lot of kids, and one of the things I've noticed is that people consume resources up to the limits of their income. Have no kids; run around the planet having fancy vacations, buying all the latest toys, driving all the latest cars -- income, $x, expenditure, $x. Have one kid, buy lots of fancy gadgets, travel perhaps not quite so widely, budget for schools and college, buy more clothes -- income, $x, expenditure, $x. Have six kids, stay home, enroll the kids in soccer, buy in bulk, buy used -- income, $x, expenditure, $x.

I don't see much of a difference in the impact, frankly. Oh, there are back-to-the-land Birkenstock green-thinkers around, but some of them have no kids -- and some of them have lots of kids. And there are shopaholics, and frankly most of them have very few (or no) kids, but use just as many resources on the two of them (or even the one of them) as families of six or eight.

I initially wanted six, had five. My friend with six initially wanted ten. My friends with four were mainly aiming for four. My friend with none didn't want any, and is happy with her choice. My friend with two feels that that's perfect for her family. I'm not calling anybody selfish, and from what I can see those kids are making positive contributions to the world. 

Sam Deeds - 08:15 pm Pacific Time - Feb 21, 2009 - #51 of 86

Moderation in all things, dammit. When organisms like bacteria undergo an exponential rate of reproduction, an alarming phenomenon inevitably emerges: The second-to-last generation to live before their species exceeds the maximum capacity of the petri dish still has half of their entire environment and resources still untouched and open for further expansion. Then the last generation, by virtue of its sheer size, will consume as much as all of their descendants combined.

The point is that by the time we see the walls of our petri dish accelerating towards us, it will then be too late to reverse course. If we're not already at that point, then at the rate we're going, we very soon will be.

That's why everyone going forward should be encouraged to stick to two newborns at most.

Plou - 08:56 pm Pacific Time - Feb 21, 2009 - #52 of 86

While it may be selfish to have more than 2 kids, it can also be selfish to limit the number of kids people can have. Yes, if I ran the world, I'd pick & choose who could have kids & surprise surprise, I'd only pick the people I approved of & I wouldn't let them live too close to me either so that their kids wouldn't bother me by running around in my yard & climbing my trees. The planet would be nice & clean and to my liking.

Since I don't run the world I plan on having 10 kids because I'll need a bunch of strong young hands to build a barn, dig a root cellar & plow the fields when the global economy collapses & climate change has destroyed our food supply. On the plus side, google's global warming flood map says I'll have beach front property by then.

As has been mentioned before, 1st world fertility rates are going down thanks to the availability of birth control and increased education for women. A woman no longer has to be a wife & mother to be able to have a role in society. So I'd argue that really, the human population doesn't want to increase exponentially. Given the option not to it either holds steady or declines slightly. Plus, when people are able to make the decision for themselves rather than have it made for them by the government or lack of birth control, everyone's happier -- and that includes the children.

But saving the world that way would require increased education & birth control programs for people outside the 1st world middle class. That and some trust in the human race. Sadly, I think that's pretty unlikely.

Sam Deeds - 10:01 pm Pacific Time - Feb 21, 2009 - #55 of 86

Respectfully, it seems as though some of you are neglecting to factor in -- or to at least accurately factor in -- the unique dynamic of the climate crisis in your risk assessments. This ain't your father's Malthus.

Because we're now within a generation, either way, of reaching an irreversible tipping point in our greenhouse gas emissions, even technically non-exponential population growth can be fatal.

The climate crisis demands that we generally reverse course on some fundamental development trends -- including our gross human biomass, which incidentally has already kicked off the Sixth Great Extinction, wherein the current extinction rate is somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than at any time over the past 60 million years.

As entire ecosystems vanish because of human activity -- we risk collapsing the overall food chain upon which we depend for survival.

Even under our best-case scenarios, millions are already doomed to perish from horrific famines as well as floods over the next fifty years.

The decision to bear more than 2 children is the decision to further strain the next generation once they inevitably begin to grapple with unparalleled, myriad resource challenges (i.e. water, crops) stemming from the climate crisis. You make it that much harder for them.

Plou - 10:20 pm Pacific Time - Feb 21, 2009 - #56 of 86

What kind of carbon footprint will my (hypothetical) 10 kids and I be making on our (hypothetical) little permaculture, solar panel-run subsistence farm compared with just plain old (hypothetical) me driving my big old car 10 miles to the Wendy's drive through?

The way we use energy & resources will have to change within the coming years whatever the birthrate. The amish family (of 12!) we buy milk & meat from grows just about all their own food and what they don't grow they buy or trade with neighbors for. Their collective carbon footprint is a fraction of mine. Plus, since they use sophisticated crop pulsing grazing techniques, the yield per acre approaches that of a conventional farm. They have a built-in work force of able bodied young adults too. Not too many career options or opportunities for self-actualization or anything but if we're talking about survival & resource use, they're doing the human race pretty well.

Thesis statement: Birthrate isn't everything.

mschmidt - 09:08 pm Pacific Time - Feb 22, 2009 - #71 of 86

I think societies can probably reasonably adjust to gradual population decline. Precipitous population decline wouldn't be all that easy.

There would have to be a significant raise in the retirement age. Put aside, for a moment, the issue of a government safety net, which you would need a large number of working taxpayers to fund. Even under that rather harsh scenario, and with the unrealistic assumption that everyone had their own retirement savings, there would be problems. An increase in the ratio of retired people to working people would result in a shortage of workers to grow the food, serve the food, build the cars, man the stores, deliver the gasoline, and everything else. Labor shortages would develop, and prices would go through the roof. Goodbye retirement savings!

Right now our fears of "astronomical unemployment" is in the low double digits--12% makes people shake in their boots. Reduce the working population by 30% and the adjustment would be much worse. You might argue that some jobs aren't really necessary for human survival, but you can't just make a huge chunk of the economy go away without consequences. If the economy contracts, what happens to the retirement savings? Economies run on people. Modern people depend on the stability of economies. Take away the people abruptly and the remaining people will suffer. During the black death, there wasn't really a modern economy. If you had another voluntary constriction in population like the black death now, and your economy would go right back to the 17th century.

I believe population contraction is necessary. I believe that a fundamental shift in economics away from mandatory growth (currently a fundamental assumption) is necessary. But I think both need to be embarked upon gradually and carefully. We are too interdependent to suffer a collapse gracefully.

I'm afraid that there will be a fear-mongering dictator who says, "You'd better watch out or the world will become over-run with a tidal wave of little (Brown!) brats and the only way to save the world is to take drastic measures!" somewhere in the 1st world within my lifetime. I'd love to be proven wrong though.

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